R S Thomas and the first poem.

I’m guessing that most of us can recall the first poem that dragged us into this curious means of expression, the first poem that demonstrated what poetry is about and what it can do. I’ve said before that mine was R S Thomas’ ‘Welsh Lanscape’, a poem that hit me with the force of a sledgehammer in an English class in 1968 when I was thirteen. Since then I think I’ve always understood that poetry is in some way special without wanting to work out what that specialness might be about.

This poem wasn’t being taught or explained to me, it was something I came across by chance in an anthology.

I think that I also need to point out that there was nothing in my personal background to suggest an affinity with things poetic, a family engaged in small-scale commerce with no experience of higher education and my interests at the time being focused on sport. So, it wasn’t as if I’d given poetry some attention, it simply hadn’t crossed my field of vision until that afternoon and suddenly/instantly I knew that:

  • poetry could do things that prose couldn’t;
  • these things were reasonably simple but worked really well;
  • this particular poem hinted at other tricks that poetry could perform.

In order to illustrate this, I set out below this poem in its entirety:

To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went to the making of the wild sky.
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses.
It is to be aware,
Above the noisy tractor
And hum of the machine
Of strife in the strung woods,
Vibrant with sped arrows.
You cannot live in the present,
At least not in Wales.
There is the language for instance,
The soft consonants
Strange to the ear.
There are cries in the dark at night
As owls answer the moon,
And thick ambush of shadows,
Hushed at the fields' corners.
There is no present in Wales,
And no future:
There is only the past,
Brittle with relics,
Wind-bitten towers and castles
With sham ghosts;
Mouldering quarries and mines;
And an impotent people,
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcase of an old song.

I am the first to admit that the above isn’t perfect but it does contain a lot of really good and effective material. The line that has stood out most in the last forty four years is ‘Vibrant with sped arrows’ because it marks the point of revelation, the realisation that very few words could do many different things at once and in a way that made more ‘sense’ than prose. At the time this line struck me because it was speaking of strife but also of the passing and trajectory of time as it is played out across the landscape. The ‘strung woods’ is also wonderfully redolent of many different things- musical instruments, execution, stress all of which tie in with the description og the arrows. ‘Sped’ is also a wonderful way of describing something in flight.

Of course, it is the first line that initially caught my eye and I think it did so because the clarity of the statement, without equivocation or ‘fluff’ challenged my assumption that poetry had to be somehow vague and evocative rather than precise.

The imagery of spilled blood would also have appealed to my then interest in the violent and gory and I probably wouldn’t have noticed the tie in between bleeding and the ‘carcase’ of the last line. The description of the skies as ‘wild’ suggests a land beset by storms which is oddly set beside the ‘immaculate’ rivers, an adjective freighted with religious connotations- Thomas was a parish priest.

The other extraordinary indicator of what poetry can do comes with the “thick ambush of shadows, / Hushed at the fields’ corners” which functions in ways that ‘ordinary’ or ‘unheightened’ language never can and I like to think that it was this that led me to an understanding of the kind of transformational magic that poems can do. This might seem pretentious and grandiose to suggest that a thirteen year old can grasp all of this from a single poem. It could also be argued that I’m still avoiding defining this particular kind of magic.

So, what follows is a personal and subjective description of this magic using ‘Welsh Landscape’ as the sole example because this saves me from endless digression and because what I understood in 1968 hasn’t changed in any significant way since. The poem tackles a huge theme, the history and fate of the Welsh nation, and does so with an intense precision. The ‘no present, no future’ statement is both angry polemic but also a kind of resigned elegy for a country that once had its own life and identity but whose past is now said to be ‘brittle with relics’. You don’t need to be familiar with the troubled history of the Welsh nation because the poem gives you this sense of defeat and decline but the magic is in the images that surprise and startle – the strung woods that are said to be vibrant but in the sense of resonating with the flight of arrows and the ambush of shadows that is said to be thick and lurking at the corners of fields. Both of these would seem overblown in prose but poetry transforms the words to create something beautiful but also something that makes more ‘sense’, is more accurate than ordinary language could ever be.

The last line is particularly effective, the notion of ‘worrying’ rather than ‘hunting’ or ‘pursuing’ this carcase makes perfect sense and more so because of the ambiguity that Thomas can do so well. I would also argue that the ‘carcase of an old song’ provides a conclusion that fits perfectly with the many ‘points’ of the poem from what time does to living things, to the various forms of song and singing, the heady mix of this poem with the Bardic tradition.

So, this magic seems, for me, to be tied up with the compression of bigger thoughts, feelings and ideas, with the production of beauty which is somehow different from the aesthetically pleasing and with the original and the startling. I’d also throw in Geoffrey Hill’s principle of ‘technical efficiency’ as contributing to the magic because the effect is primarily spoiled by inefficiency as in ‘noisy tractor’ and ‘for instance’ in the above.

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